This week Parliament is debating a Bill that, if passed, will allow Theresa May’s government to trigger Article 50, beginning the process of withdrawing the UK from the European Union. After the Bill is debated, the government has pledged to produce a ‘Brexit White Paper’. Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, has imposed a three-line whip, putting pressure on Labour MPs to vote in favour of the Bill. Two Labour shadow ministers have already resigned from the frontbench in protest.
These byzantine parliamentary procedures and arcane terminology can often seem utterly impenetrable to the outside observer, so let’s try and break down what it all means.
On 23rd June 2016, the UK voted by 52% to 48% in favour of leaving the EU. In order to put this decision into action, the UK government has to trigger Article 50. This simply means informing the EU of the UK’s desire to leave. That then begins a two year negotiating period, during which time the UK and EU will establish the basis of their future relationship. Initially, the government hoped to be able to trigger Article 50 without having to pass a Bill (that’s a draft law) through Parliament. However, the UK Supreme Court decided last month that Parliament must be consulted and allowed to vote on the matter. In response to this, the government produced a short Bill, just one page long, which essentially confers power onto the Prime Minister to notify the European Union of the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from it. So if the Bill passes, Theresa May will have full legal power to begin the process of withdrawing the UK from the EU, or ‘trigger Article 50’, whenever she pleases (she pleases in March).
Despite the fact that a considerable majority of MPs were opposed to Brexit (about 73% of all MPs supported the Remain side during the referendum), the Bill is expected to pass through Parliament pretty comfortably. MPs do not want to be accused of ignoring the ‘will of the people’, whatever their personal reservations might be. Initially, there was some talk of a rebellion by Conservative MPs who wanted more details about the Prime Minister’s aims during the upcoming Brexit negotiations. However, this threat has receded with Theresa May’s promise to publish a ‘White Paper’. A ‘White Paper’ is simply a policy document setting out the government’s plans on a specific subject. In this case, it would lay out in more detail what the government’s aims will be when they begin negotiating with the EU. In all likelihood it will sound very similar to Theresa May’s recent speech on creating a ‘Global Britain’ – that means no more Single Market and no more Freedom of Movement.
So far so simple, but all of this puts the Labour Party in a very tricky position. An overwhelming majority of Labour MPs support remaining in the EU, but around 70% of areas represented by Labour MPs voted to leave. On the other hand,many of the areas that voted most overwhelmingly to remain are also represented by Labour MPs. This internal schism has been widened even further by Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to put in place a ‘Three-Line Whip’ on the Article 50 Bill. Despite sounding like some sort of medieval torture device, a ‘Three-Line Whip’ literally means that the written instruction given to all Labour MPs telling them which way to vote is underlined three times, in order to stress that the order MUST (I know that was only one..) be followed. The order is sent out by a ‘Whip’, an MP whose job it is to enforce party discipline. Simply put, the ‘Three-Line Whip’ means that Jeremy Corbyn is insisting that all Labour MPs must vote in favour of the Bill giving Theresa May the power to trigger Article 50. When it comes to enforcing party discipline, a ‘Three-Line Whip’ is a powerful tool. If MPs choose to ignore it, they will almost certainly be sacked from any positions of authority they currently hold and will probably be overlooked for any future positions as well. The irony is that, before he was leader of the Labour Party,Corbyn himself defied the ‘Whip’ hundreds of times.
Since the ‘Three-Line Whip’ was announced, a number of Labour MPs in prominent positions have stated that they will ignore the order and vote against the Article 50 Bill anyway. These MPs represent areas that voted strongly in favour of Remaining in the EU, so they are making the argument that their first responsibility is to their own constituents, rather than the population of the UK as a whole.
That’s a short summary of the saga so far, but remember: this is all just skirmishing. The real Brexit Battles are still to come!